WASHINGTON (CN) – As media reports stated Tuesday that six out of 10 Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy despite receiving billions of dollars in American aid, experts on the region said the “abysmal” public approval rating is improving slowly.
Vali Nasr, senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, said that a 15 or 16 percent approval rating in a country considered a U.S. ally, though “abysmal,” was “probably double what it was some days.” He said the situation in Pakistan should be looked at as a “glass half-full” scenario.
Nasr said the difficulties the United States faces in the region is partly because the area was on the periphery of U.S. foreign policy since the United States left Afghanistan in 1989, and now it is trying to make up for “long neglect” of those relationships.
It will take time, he said, adding that the United States has gained some ground in the region over the past year, especially concerning the “trust gap” with the Pakistani people.
And in Afghanistan, Nasr said, the additional troops ordered by President Obama last December are making a measurable difference.
Nasr said progress was easier to see in Pakistan because the “government-to-government engagement” was more visible than the combined military-civilian effort in Afghanistan. Nasr said ties with the Pakistani government were strong.
“Overall, we are doing well,” Nasr said.
“There’s no real alternative to what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan,” said former Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army Gen. Jehangir Karamat, who spoke at the Brookings Institution Tuesday. Karamat said Pakistan strongly supported what the United States was doing in Afghanistan, especially because Pakistan did not want any “spillover” of the conflict.
Karamat blamed the negative opinion poll on media spin.
“It depends on who you are talking to and how much they are aware of the intricacies of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,” he said. “The positive side doesn’t come up in the media … It is very much known what the U.S. is doing for Pakistan.”
Karamat said Pakistani support reconciliation in Afghanistan.
Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, said the problem with the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that it is too “palace-focused.” He said the United States would not be able to accomplish its objectives of building up Afghan security forces and letting them take the lead in combat until it brings in regional leaders and achieves widespread unity.
“The body politic cannot attempt reconciliation unless there is political unity,” Coll said.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon said the U.S. has been making progress on the ground in Afghanistan with an “intense apprenticeship” of Afghan security forces by U.S. and NATO forces, but the harder questions were whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a reliable partner for the United States or whether there is consensus among Afghans in moving forward.
“It would help to have an explicit statement from the president on what his strategy is,” O’Hanlon said.
He said a statement from Obama that he “intends or hopes for” a gradual, conditions-based withdrawal of troops starting in July 2011 would be more productive than “extreme discretion bordering on a policy of deliberate confusion.”
O’Hanlon said Obama’s relative silence on Afghanistan was “doing more harm than good.”